A few days ago I watched season 5 of Black Mirror, a show I have a sort of love-hate relationship with. The premises are usually pretty interesting, but the morals feel heavy-handed and often don’t even say anything of actual substance beyond “Technology is bad” and “Privacy is good.” It tries to be a modern-day Twilight Zone, but I feel like most of the plots in Black Mirror were actually done better by the original run of the older series.
(As a note, I’ve seen the first two episodes of the current Twilight Zone revival and they’re fantastic. I need to get around to watching the rest of it at some point.)
Anyway. Season 5 returns to the series' original 3-story-per-season format, which helps to keep things fairly tight and focused, unlike the sprawling, interconnected mess that was season 4. (Okay, “Arkangel” was pretty good, and “USS Callister” was at least a fun heist episode, although it over-relied on a bunch of tropes which rubbed me in the wrong way but that’s a subject for a different blog entry.)
So far, critics seem to be loving the first episode (“Striking Vipers”), just apathetic to the second episode (“Smithereens”), and absolutely loathing the third episode (“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”). My feelings on the episodes are pretty much completely inverted from that – “Striking Vipers” was just okay (with a decent, but hollow, payoff at the end), “Smithereens” was a lot of setup for a story that didn’t have a lot of substance, and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is probably my favorite episode of the entire series so far.
Some more detailed thoughts have been pinging around in my head for the last few days so I figure I’d share them. I’m going to try to limit any actual spoilers here, but you probably need to watch the episodes to have a point of reference; this isn’t a review, but neither is it a recap.
seriously you should probably watch the episodes first
The thing that’s most, um, striking to me about this episode is that it takes a premise that I, as well as a lot of my friends – basically anyone who’s furry, trans, or has ever been on a MUCK – have thought quite a lot about. While the episode starts out as an indictment about addiction to video games, it soon turns into addiction to “transgressive” sex.
And somehow this episode makes the concepts of gender/race/identity-bending as boring and vanilla as possible.
They never experiment with different characters, they’re just going to different places to do the same things over and over again. When they try to bring their relationship into the real world, they quickly realize that the setting is what’s important. But the involved people are also important, too, because they need an emotional connection for it to work too.
It also very neatly glosses over the discussion about whether this counts as “cheating,” or what this can even mean for relationships today. Never is any idea of fluidity or polyamory or the like even brought into the picture; it’s all framed in a very cishet, monogamous “ongoing affair” narrative, which just comes across as lacking imagination.
The ending does have a decent payoff (that is ultimately much more empowering to the mostly-ignored wife), but it still frames it through the lens of cheating as a prize and an indulgence that happens to keep a relationship stable. And the husband’s indulgence continues to be boring, in the end. Maybe they could have formed a polycule. Maybe the VR company could capitalize on this (really shouldn’t be) unexpected use of their technology, and maybe they could build experiences that the wife would be interested in. But, y'know. Gamerbros gonna gamerbro, I guess.
I do give the episode credit for at least not having any major white characters, but it also seems to be written through a very white-as-aspirational lens, although I am not even remotely qualified to actually discuss this. I think there would be an interesting deeper discusison to be had about it though.
Anyway, at least the technology never kills anyone and doesn’t lead to any permanent “Help! My consciousness is trapped in an unending hell!” results like is so common for Black Mirror, and if anything it shows VR as having potential as being positively transformative. (But “San Junipero” already did that one better.)
I don’t really have a lot to say about this. Most of the episode is just showing how clever this person is despite being probably the world’s worst criminal (but he’s also not a criminal and doesn’t want to hurt anyone). Woe is the poor rich tech billionaire who regrets what social networking has done to the world. He and the protagonist seem to be the only two people who have ever thought about distractions and social media addiction, and the protagonist only had to think about it because it indirectly caused a major trauma in his life.
(Hey, did you know most smartphones have a “Do not disturb while driving” mode?)
I thought I saw exactly where this was going as soon as the little robot appeared – this is a staple of Black Mirror, of course – but it kept on throwing me curveballs that sent it in a different direction. For once the technology wasn’t the villain, either – it was the users of the technology which were, and the unending, thirsty, selfish vampire that is capitalism. Plus, it ultimately becomes a heist episode, and there are recurring bubblegum-pop covers of Nine Inch Nails songs used as a framing device. More of this, please.
The episode only hinted at the horror that many of the tiny robots must have faced, but I’m glad it didn’t dwell on this. You can watch season 4 if you actually want that sort of thing.
Also, best use of Miley Cyrus ever.
(I really want her to do an album of unironic NIN covers now. Or maybe do a collaboration with the man himself.)